In Conversation: Opeth’s “In Cauda Venenum” Is a Different Kind of Heaviness

Mikael Åkerfeldt on the Swedish prog metal group’s bilingual, “super-epic” new album.
In Conversation: Opeth’s “In Cauda Venenum” Is a Different Kind of Heaviness

Mikael Åkerfeldt on the Swedish prog metal group’s bilingual, “super-epic” new album.

Words: Dan Epstein

photos by Jonas Åkerlund

September 26, 2019

As anyone who has followed the twists and turns of Opeth’s long and winding career should know by now, predicting the Swedish progressive metal band’s next move is a fool’s errand. Never content to stay in one place, frontman and guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt has led the band through numerous incarnations since the release of their 1995 debut, Orchid, gradually jettisoning the growling vocals and blast beats of their early death metal days while bringing more tuneful, imaginative, and challenging musical elements to the fore.

If Opeth’s various artistic forays—like the progressive-metal flowerings of 2001’s Blackwater Park, 2003’s mellow and reflective Damnation, or the full-on ’70s prog-rock feast of 2011’s Heritage—haven’t always been readily embraced by fans or critics, they’ve nonetheless managed to remain admirably true to Åkerfeldt’s expansive vision without losing any shred of musical identity along the way. In Cauda Venenum, the band’s thirteenth and latest album may be Opeth’s most grandiose statement yet, but the record’s entrancing dynamics, intertwining guitar-and-Mellotron riffs, and Åkerfeldt’s emotive vocals are all quite obviously the work of the same band that has been expanding (and blowing) the minds of discerning metal listeners for a quarter of a century.

The big surprise this time around, however, is that In Cauda Venenum’s lyrics are in Swedish, making this the first Opeth album that Åkerfeldt has written and sung in his native tongue. The band is also releasing an English version with the exact same music; but rather than detract from the listening experience, the impenetrable (for this listener, anyway) Swedish lyrics seem to actually add an extra layer of mystery and timelessness to the already beguiling music.

I caught up with Åkerfeldt at home in Stockholm to get the lowdown on the making of In Cauda Venenum, including how writing in Swedish changed his songwriting approach, and how Queen, Kate Bush, and even Scott Walker influenced the album’s “super-epic” sound. 

At what point did you decide you wanted to make an album in Swedish?

I was in my car, taking my kids to school—it’s like taxi service when you have children [laughs]. I had already started writing [for the album], and thinking about what I should do with this record. I got the idea that maybe we should do it in Swedish, and it wasn’t any more mysterious than that. And that helped me to really get going with the songwriting. It was originally just meant to be a Swedish album; and then, further down the line, I decided to do the English version, too.

Were you worried that a Swedish-only album would alienate some of your fans?

Yeah, I think so. I’m pretty headstrong, but I was a bit worried that people might skip this record because they wouldn’t understand what I was singing about. I’ve recently been getting into Italian prog, for instance, which I’d skipped early on because there was a language barrier. So I figured that if there were more people like me out there, it would be a shame [laughs]! So I did the English version based on insecurity, I guess.

You’ve always written in English before. How did writing in Swedish affect the songs?

First and foremost, it was more fun, I think, to write in Swedish. And it also changed the lyrics, to some extent, because they became more modern or more contemporary, you might say. They were not so embellished with nice words, because it’s my native tongue, it’s nothing special. When I write in English, I usually embellish the lyrics with beautiful, complicated, Renaissance-era words [laughs], and will kind of write sentences around a specific word. But I couldn’t really do that this time around, because there weren’t any beautiful words. So they became more contemporary, and more about today. And I also think they came out better, with more substance to them than in the past. I guess that’s because it was easier for me to understand what the hell I was writing!

Was it a challenge to then translate the lyrics to English without losing something in the process?

Yes, some things were lost a little bit; it was difficult getting everything exactly right. I would say around 75 percent of the lyrics were quite easy to translate; I just needed to allow myself a nice, hefty portion of poetic freedom to get it right. The remaining 25 percent, I just had to free-form. But the meanings of the songs are the same, I think.

You wrote this record during what was supposed to be a hiatus for the band. Was this “hiatus” really just a way of getting your label and management off your back, so you could write in peace?

Well, I think the other guys in the band are into touring more than I am, and the touring is what really gets me down, so to speak. That’s what makes me want to have a break—not writing music, which is pure pleasure. But writing and recording a record means that soon enough you will be out touring again, so I was looking to have a sabbatical of sorts…just spending time with my children and my girlfriend, and being back home, cooking and eating and taking it easy.

Reveling in domesticity.

Yeah! But I didn’t really think about how my kids, every morning, go off to school, and my girlfriend is working or studying, and I’m left on my own, wondering what I’m supposed to do during the day. So I got bored, I guess [laughs]. I went down to my home studio to restring a guitar, and I ended up starting to write music. And I had, quite quickly, some nice ideas, and I was having such a good time that I just continued. But I didn’t really tell anyone until I was about halfway through; I didn’t want management to go, “Ooh, you have a new one on the way? OK, let’s start booking dates for the studio and the tour and the press trip!” I didn’t want that. I just wanted to sit there and have a good time. So I waited until I thought, “OK, I want to record this,” and then I told management, and we started looking at studios.  

“The touring is what really gets me down, so to speak. That’s what makes me want to have a break—not writing music, which is pure pleasure.”

And you were just following your muse this time, rather than specifically writing to the strengths of the band?

No, I never do that. I always write for me—but more so this time around, I think. Because there’s always an aspect where you don’t really know where you’re at until you have the finished record; you write, you record, and then you listen back at the end and go, “OK, that’s what it is!” I’m a very impulsive writer, and I often don’t know what I have until it’s finished. But this time, I was pretty clear that this would be a big, pompous, epic kind of record. I wanted to write the kind of music I consume myself, which is super-epic and pompous [laughs]. That’s the stuff that I like the most, the songs that tug at your heartstrings. That’s what I wanted to do this time around, and I didn’t really leave that idea at any point. And I had more time to sit around and change things during the writing process, because nobody was waiting for it.

Were there any particular artists that you were looking to for inspiration or guidance, in terms of the “super-epic” sound and feel of the record?

Yeah, I mean, the obvious one would be Queen in their finest moments; it’s kind of hard to beat Queen when they’re firing on all cylinders! They can still make me feel like I want to cry to their music, and that’s basically what I was after. I listened to lots of Queen and Kate Bush, actually. “Wuthering Heights”—have you played that in your headphones recently? Oh, man! It’s just, wow, my god! And there’s another song on that first record of hers, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes.” What a beautiful song! I was listening to lots of masterpieces, really. Some classical music, Mozart; I went to see Mozart’s Requiem performed at a church here in Stockholm, which was just overwhelming.  

Some moments on the record actually remind me of Scott Walker’s late-’60s albums. Was he an influence at all?

Yeah! He’s just passed, as you know, and I’m refusing to accept that. There are some records that he did—his first four solo albums, especially Scott 3 and Scott 4—those records are just so fantastic. And even the more twisted stuff he did in his later years is amazing. But yeah, you’re right—he’s in there. 

There’s a heaviness to those Scott Walker records—and in In Cauda Venenum—that’s more existential than in the sense of down-tuned guitars and brutal drums, but it’s no less powerful.  

It’s funny you should say that, because I’ve been saying exactly that a lot recently. Many of the people who like our band are obsessed with some of our older records, which are more traditionally heavy with the screams and all that. And I love that stuff, too, but they kind of obsess over those records—like, that’s how it should be, and we’re not allowed to say that a new record is “heavy” unless it has those kinds of components. But I have a different view. There are different kinds of heaviness—there’s an emotional kind of heaviness, and there’s a heaviness in a lyric delivery, or in the use of an acoustic guitar or a piano. For me, the traditional heaviness of heavy metal music, that can almost sound wimpy, do you know what I mean? That can sound like children’s music to me, like the Smurfs [laughs]! 

We just played a festival outside of Amsterdam, and in the catering room for the festival they were playing modern metal music. And I couldn’t tell one band from another! They were definitely different bands, but the songs were all similar, and the sounds were definitely similar. There’s like a go-to metal sound these days that I’m really, really fed up with; I can’t stand it. And I didn’t want that—I wanted to get away from that, like two thousand percent, for this record.

Well, when you’ve been established for as long as Opeth has, would it even make sense for you to chase the current sound?

Not anymore. We’ve done that sound, too, especially in the early to mid-2000s. Like, Ghost Reveries and Watershed—I think they are really good records, but there are bands still going to Jens [Bogren], who produced that record, saying, “We want to get that type of sound.” Which makes me happy, but those kinds of productions usually come with shitloads of editing, where everything is edited so much that you can raise the volume of a single cymbal without affecting the rest of the drum kit. There’s crossfades between every hit, it’s completely clean, and in the end, of course, it’s very easy to make a good-sounding mix…

“There’s like a go-to metal sound these days that I’m really, really fed up with; I can’t stand it. And I didn’t want that—I wanted to get away from that, like two thousand percent, for this record.”

But for me, there’s also a kind of robotic feel to those records, which I want to get away from; I want to hear that it’s humans playing, and not loads of studio trickery on the record. Ghost Reveries and Watershed, those are both really nice records and I’m very happy with them. But it was a matter of doing twenty takes of the same riff, and then Jens would kind of piece it together—he’d tell us, “Go out and have a coffee. Come back later.” And the end result was fucking good, yes; but it’s also not good for morale, it’s not good for the band. It’s better if we make the call, that we decide when it’s good enough, and not someone else…

With Stefan Boman, who engineered and co-produced this record, we worked until we had a good take, and when we were done, we moved on. If you fuck up, you punch in and then continue. We also recorded it with all the effects already on the guitars—echoes, reverb, all that stuff. We didn’t add those afterwards. You couldn’t really change your mind about them, or you’d have to do another recording. And I like to collectively make that decision—“It sounds good, now let’s record it”—rather than recording it and changing it afterwards. Which also saves time in the end, I guess.

Have you begun working any of the new material into your live sets?

No, because we’ve only been doing festivals since we did the record. And at festivals, you don’t have a sound check, so you don’t want to be pushed onstage to play a new, nine-minute song; you don’t know what the sound is going to be like, and then somebody films it with their phone and puts it on fucking YouTube, and people are like, “Oh, they suck!” You want some type of control before you present a new song. We made the decision that we’re going to wait to play the new tracks until we’re on tour for this record, and it’s been released—when we have soundchecks, we’re well-rehearsed, all of that stuff. So we haven’t played anything new yet.

Will you be singing the new songs in English or Swedish?

I think I have veto, because I am the singer, but I also don’t know. When we’re playing live, I want us to be entertainers; I want people to feel that they are having a good time, and I’m not sure how much singing along works into having a good time. I would be more comfortable, personally, if we did it in Swedish, because that’s the original version. But technically, I could do either—or maybe just kind of mix it up, where I do every other line in Swedish and every other line in English [laughs]. FL